Froma Harrop.jpg

Froma Harrop

What can you say about “sophisticated” investors who would pile billions into a startup whose 40-year-old founder walks the streets of Manhattan barefooted and says his company’s mission is to “elevate the world’s consciousness”? Did I mention that his enterprise has yet to turn a penny of profit?

We speak of Japan-based SoftBank and other investors who believed in WeWork after swallowing much of its “yoga babble.” They thought that its creator-pitchman, Adam Neumann, was touched by the eccentric genius of a Steve Jobs. Why was never clear.

In actuality, WeWork is in the mundane business of subletting office space. You or I could gain control of an office area and divide it into sections to rent it out.

What Neumann did was offer communal seating where freelancers could hug one another over cups of excellent coffee. Popcorn could be ordered as well as meditation sessions. Thus, WeWork became one of Wall Street’s storied unicorns. A unicorn is a privately held startup valued at over $1 billion.

Of course, you or I also could have designed hip working spaces and portrayed them as a revolution in 21st-century work-life-whatever. We also could have issued a prospectus that opened, as WeWork’s did, with “We dedicate this to the energy of we — greater than any one of us but inside all of us.”

Eventually, investors began figuring all this out. And they started fleeing.

The amazing thing, though, is that they took this guy seriously for so long. How could allegedly smart money people put so much faith in an exhibitionist whose history and behavior suggested he is a crackpot, con artist or both? For starters, Neumann had already chalked up a string of business failures — among them a company marketing collapsible high heels.

Then there were his six extravagant homes, some almost next door. They included two super pricey homes in Manhattan, a large farm in the nearby Westchester exurbs, two fancy mansions in the Hamptons and a large estate in California’s Marin County. Most of them underwent expensive renovations. Neumann and his wife were said to be recently scouting properties on Kauai island in Hawaii.

The money for all this luxury presumably came from investors believing in his visionary powers. The magic started fading when WeWork attempted to raise billions more by issuing stock to the public. The problem with public offerings is that they require companies to share certain unflattering information heretofore kept secret.

Let’s set the scene. Neumann was surfing in the Maldives when the business types in New York were putting together the initial public offering document. Refusing to cut his vacation short to join them, he instead had a lower-level WeWork employee join him in the Maldives to brief him.

The prospectus disclosed the company’s ugly losses and its questionable path for making a profit. It also revealed how much of a fortune the founder was siphoning off, one area in which Neumann was quite focused.

This story happens again and again. Elizabeth Holmes raised hundreds of millions from investors for Theranos without ever having issued an audited financial report. Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University who coined the term “yoga babble,” cited the Peloton fitness bicycle phenomenon.

Peloton called itself “an innovation company transforming the lives of people around the world.”

“No,” said Galloway in response, “You sell exercise equipment.”

SoftBank is now bailing out what’s left of WeWork. Neumann has been relieved of his duties, although not before arranging a $184 million consulting contract and the right to sell nearly $1 billion of his WeWork shares to SoftBank.

SoftBank’s investors are now worried about SoftBank. They would seem to have reason.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. 

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